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Narberth Stories

The Library Vanishes

Six years before the Narberth Community Library opened, the newly-formed Civic Association organized citizens to create a free library using donated books and volunteer labor. It had 1,500 volumes and every expectation of a Carnegie-endowed building. But that never happened.

boys sit around a table reading, surrounded by shelves full of books
The 1911 YMCA library, whose 1,000 volumes were added to the Narberth Free Public Library in 1915. Annual Announcement and Handbook of the Young Men's Christian Association of Narberth, Pennsylvania, Season 1911-1912, page 16 (PDF).

The Narberth Community Library opened January 31, 1921 for one hour with 18 books. We'll be celebrating its 100th anniversary soon. Five years earlier, the "Narberth Free Public Library" had a collection of 1,500 books, was open 9am to 10pm, and a Carnegie-endowed library building was being planned. What happened?

Narberth at 20

In 1915 Narberth turned twenty, growing lately by 200 newcomers a year.  "The year 'round home town" under its newly-formed Civic Association commemorated itself in a historical pageant, started a newspaper, and plans were well afoot to develop the swamp at the west end of town into "Narbrook". The young town exuded a spirit of enthusiasm and optimism, of community and cooperation. Everything a well-ordered small town needed for respectability and success, Narberth would have.

"A Library a Public Benefaction" editorialized the energetic and ambitious Narberth Civic Association in its four-month-old newspaper Our Town on January 21, 1915. "Why shouldn't Narberth enjoy such a blessing?"

newspaper clipping "A Library a Public Benefaction"
The editorial that started the library campaign. Our Town, January 21, 1915

A Library a Public Benefaction.

A library is not a luxury; it is not for the cultured few; it is not merely for the scientific; it is not for any intellectual cult or exclusive literary set. It is a great, broad, universal public benefaction. It lifts the entire community; it is the right arm of the intellectual development of the people, ministering to the wants of those who are already educated and spreading a universal desire for education. It is the upper story of the public school system, while it is a broad field where in ripe Scholars may find a fuller training for their already highly developed faculties. It is above all, a splendid instrument for the education and culture of those vast masses of boys and girls that are denied the high privileges of the systematic training of the schools.

Why shouldn't Narberth enjoy such a blessing as this most democratic institution affords? What do you say?

"Why not inaugurate this force for good in Narberth?" continued the drumbeat in February. And after the inspirational, the hard sell: "Narberth Without Books: Can you imagine a world intellectually famine-smitten like that—a bookless world—and not shrink with horror from the thought of being condemned to it? What can be done to start a Library?"

Swat the fly and give a book!

After a one-week pause for the minor distraction of drawing lots for home sites in "Narberth Garden, A Model Community" (Narbrook Park), the Civic Association promoted the Library to page one. The public was challenged to donate "600 BOOKS FOR THE NEW LIBRARY". Succeeding front pages catalogued the rising book count and titles, and praised the donors by name. "Swat the fly and give a book!" memorably counseled the March 18 update. (Fly control was a serious and ongoing concern in pre-antibiotic 1915. The library campaign competed for attention not only with Narbrook, but with pest eradication efforts.)

By April, far sooner than anyone had expected, the 600 donations were attained. 1,000 volumes were appropriated from the former Y. M. C. A. library and "our Free Public Library in the Y. M. C. A. Community Center" was open. Volunteers had even constructed the bookshelves from donated materials. Lists of the titles became a running serial in Our Town, and donors of "the 600" were profiled. By November "our Free Library of 1500 volumes is at the service of the community from 9 A. M. to 10 P. M." As had so much in Narberth recently, it developed at a breakneck speed.

“Carnegie Library for Narberth In Sight”

By the next summer, the effort appeared to be reaching a culmination, judging by Our Town's headline of June 29, 1916, quoted above. On July 10 Borough Council formally heard a proposal to acquire a building site and apply for a Carnegie grant to construct a dedicated library building, which "we had excellent prospect of procuring".

Then the record goes silent.

In July 1916, Narberth School director Carroll Downes had presented the library proposal to Council. In January 1918 new Narberth Burgess Carroll Downes's message to Council does not even mention it. When the Civic Association listed its "big and more important achievements" that November, number 13 was "Developed the free public library at the Y. M. C. A.". But poring over every subsequent edition into 1921 of Our Town, the Association’s official publication, has yet to reveal further discussion or reporting on the topic.

“The absence of a library in Narberth…”

What became of the Narberth Free Public Library, Carnegie, the 1500 books? Perhaps a document hidden away in a file box in the rafters of Borough Hall, or at the Carnegie Corporation archive, if an application was indeed submitted, will someday shed light on the question. World War Ⅰ, which the U. S. entered in April 1917, was a hugely disruptive event that postponed or scuppered many a project throughout the land. 59 Carnegie-endowed public libraries were opened in Pennsylvania; the final grant was awarded May 3, 1917. The one thing that seems clear is that by 1921 the Narberth Free Public Library ceased to be.

On February 5, 1921, Our Town's tone was sober: "The absence of a library in Narberth has been a source of constant regret to many people". The story was announcing that "The Community Club Library" with its 18 books had opened for one hour the previous Monday morning. Our Narberth Community Library was up and running, as if the earlier library never existed.


  1. Between the 1910 and 1920 censuses, Narberth grew by 1,914, more than doubling in size. Return